There was a moment, two years ago, during Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance as Willy Loman, in the Broadway revival of “Death of a Salesman,” when the actor seemed to break down. After a climactic fight, Willy’s son Biff sobs wildly and reaches for his father as Willy desperately pulls his lost son to him. Different actors playing Willy have done this scene in different ways: Lee J. Cobb held Biff with weak, half-clenched fists, as if fear and humiliation had atrophied his hands; Dustin Hoffman kept his hands suspended just over Biff’s back, unable to touch him, as if alienated not just from the product of his labor but from the creation of his own flesh.
But Hoffman’s Willy embraced his son with hungry physical intensity, hands open and grasping, as if his miserable existence had found its destiny, which was simply to hold and be held by another person, for no profit or purpose beyond fulfilling an elemental need. Hearing the news that Hoffman, long haunted by addiction and recently separated from his companion, who was also the mother of their three children, had died of a heroin overdose, I could not help but recall that unforgettable moment onstage, in which the engine of Hoffman’s art—a barely disciplined helplessness—stood revealed in his character’s ordeal.
Much will probably be written in the coming days about addiction, and about how much more Hoffman could have done if only he had kept the poison out of his life—and that is true, to an extent. He was only forty-six when he died. But the brute, ugly fact might also be that the poison was his elixir. It could be that Hoffman belonged that small group of artists who have an arrangement with their demons. It is the stuff of myth and folklore: the Faustian bargain, Balzac’s “The Wild Ass’s Skin,” “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” In these half-allegories, the price of remarkable creative vitality is a wasting away of mortality. Or, to put it another way: without the need to flee from pain by transfiguring it, you would not have the energy to endure the suffering, the solitude, and the uncertainty that are part and parcel of artistic expression.
This comes dangerously close, I know, to the banal romantic notion that all genuine artists must suffer, which is accurate only in the sense that people are by definition gregarious and that making art, even if you are an actor plunging, in public, down into your depths, is solitary, even asocial, in its untrammelled freedom. Still, the link between suffering and creativity seems less romantic than pragmatic. There is something to Aristophanes’ satiric parable in which humans were once whole and were then split down the middle, and thus spent their lives seeking their other half. We would not love or desire if we had everything we needed. Some artists, like Hoffman, would not escape into their creations if art did not mend what life had painfully shattered.
Like all artistic geniuses, Hoffman redefined his art, and the way he redefined it was, precisely, to disappear into his characters instead of playing his life as he was playing his role, which has been until recently the American style of acting. For every role that, in retrospect, seems to reflect his inner turmoil, there were characters he played to perfection who were a universe away from a tormented man. You watch Brando, and Brando’s immediate heir, Al Pacino, and De Niro and Dustin Hoffman, and all the other so-called Method actors, and you are watching with a double perspective. They are playing what we think we know about them as real people even as they are portraying a made-up person. And, through their accumulated roles, they are not just creating a body of work—they are telling their life story. (This mostly applies to male actors of the Method generation, not to female actors, but that is a different subject for a different essay.)
By contrast, Hoffman relinquished himself to his characters; thus the designation of character actor. In that, he was more like a British actor than an American one, though Hoffman’s rawness would, in a British actor, be a well-oiled spontaneity. Between wry, jaded Truman Capote, the craven, venal journalist in “Red Dragon,” and the wholly unironic and superhumanly self-possessed Lancaster Dodd in “The Master,” there are no characterological affinities, only utter self-annihilation. Hoffman may not have been the first character actor to become a star—Jeffrey Wright and Kevin Spacey also come to mind—but he was the most brilliant and unforgettable.
In our current post-character-actor moment, Hoffman was creating a new conventional style for younger actors to react against, just as Pacino had for the previous generation. Bradley Cooper, for example, does not play himself, yet he does not disappear into his character, either; he is, like a member of a medieval travelling-theatre group, simply a professional actor for hire. Staying professional is one way for an actor to survive. Whether it will produce performances that are, like so many of Hoffman’s, immortal, remains to be seen.
[Lee Siegel is the author of, among other books, two collections of criticism, “Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination” and “Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television.” He is a frequent contributor to newyorker.com.]